“The books that come up least often”—claimed Bob Hicok, in his 2019 essay “The Promise of American Poetry”—“are by straight white men of any age. The faces of poetry have changed.”1 With equal parts enthusiasm and melancholy, Hicok observed that, “from winners of major literary prizes in recent years to Amazon’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought’ section,” the new stars of poetry were younger, less straight, less male, and, on the whole, more racially diverse.
Online criticism of the essay came swiftly. Many argued that Hicok missed the mark: the odds were not against white male poets because they were white or male, some said, but because their poetry was bad. Others called the essay an example of white tears. But, white male self-pity aside, in many ways Hicok’s observations echoed literary scholars who have remarked on the changing demographics of prestige culture. “Over the past twenty years,” wrote Isaac Ginsberg Miller in Callaloo, “there has been a dramatic change in the racial demographics of US poets who have been awarded the field’s most prestigious annual book awards.”2
Indeed, around the turn of the 21st century, the winners of literary prizes began to be more diverse. This change is heartening. But while more writers of color have been rewarded, this increasingly capacious literary culture is also becoming more exclusionary, more tied to elite educational institutions, and more difficult to enter. These obstacles are most salient for writers who are not white, a troubling contradiction in what otherwise appears to be a moment of watershed inclusion.
We have been working with a spreadsheet of demographic data—for a related book in progress—of the winners and judges of 51 literary prizes in all genres, from 1918 forward. The prizes we examine have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. To identify the race and/or ethnicity of these authors, we worked with a team of research assistants, relying entirely on how writers self-defined.3 We noticed that after 2000, the demographics of prize winners began to resemble the population demographics of the US. And in more recent years, Black writers, in particular, have been well recognized by the literary establishment. In 2017, Black writers for the first time won more literary prizes, 38 percent, than writers of any other race or ethnicity. Literature does indeed appear to be changing.
We wondered whether these changes reflected similar shifts in the racial demographics of literary production as a whole. Was more literature by Black writers being published each year?
In order to quantify this, we gathered a random sample of around five hundred fiction and poetry books published after 2000. We collected this sample from Books In Print, a massive bibliographic database that includes any title with an ISBN, from New York Times best-sellers to self-published novels. This Books In Print sample represents US literature as a whole in this article. When we say that a writer is “more likely to win” one of the 44 prizes given out every year, we mean in comparison to the 70,000 or so writers who published a book listed in that same year’s Books In Print.
This large group of “total” writers is overwhelmingly white: over 90 percent in the sample, a number that has held steady since the 1990s. We could say definitively that publication by Black writers has not increased.
When we compared this random sample to the data set of prizewinning writers, we found that since 2000 those who identify as other than white are 3.5 times more likely to win a literary prize. These odds are statistically significant and reflect a radical change in the racial demographics of writers who win prizes.
And yet, when we place these odds in context with other odds, a more complicated picture emerges. What matters far more than race is where a writer went to college or university.
When we compared prizewinning writers to the same random sample of writers in Books In Print, we noticed that those with an elite degree (Ivy League, Stanford, University of Chicago) are nine times more likely to win than those without one. And more specifically, those who attended Harvard are 17 times more likely to win.
Some may think this simply reflects excellence at work: writers who attend elite schools are presumed to be the smartest, or to have received the best training. And if writers do not come from backgrounds that grant easy access to elite education, their talents are nonetheless recognized by these institutions, who then open the door for them with scholarship funding. But in our research, we have noticed again and again stories about educational access where race and class overlap, stories that complicate any easy narrative of recognized merit.
These stories often describe entry to an elite institution marked by luck, circumstance, or extreme effort on the part of a parent. Victor LaValle talks about his mother who “worked like a machine,” enrolling her son in a private school on scholarship before he went to Cornell and Columbia.4 In the acknowledgments of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, the author thanks her mother’s former employer, who in the memoir we learn “offered to pay [Ward’s] tuition to attend the private Episcopalian school his children attended.”5 From there, Ward went to Stanford for a BA and an MA. Ward remarks that her mother, who cleaned this family’s house, was effectively “locked … into this employment situation for at least six more years, the time I would need to graduate from high school, regardless of whether she was happy or wanted to work elsewhere.”6 One of the most successful writers we know got an MFA from Columbia because the parents of their college roommate wrote a check for the entire cost.
Literary prizes describe their rewards using a rhetoric of inclusion. But the frequency of these stories suggests that “excellence” is arrived at more taxingly for some than for others.
Since the turn of the 21st century, even as there have been more racially diverse prizewinners, there have also been more white winners.
The data underscore the ways educational inequality subtly compounds racial inequality. To further complicate that “3.5 times more likely” statistic, although Black writers have won more prizes in recent years, they have had to do more, be “better” educated, to be recognized as excellent.
A Harvard degree boosts the odds of winning for all writers, but a Black writer who attended Harvard is 19 times more likely to win, a significant odds increase in comparison to Black writers who did not attend Harvard. Another way to put this: a Black writer with an elite degree is about 13 percent more likely to win a prize than a Black writer without an elite degree.
In short, instead of equity, we see an example of Claudia Rankine’s incisive observation about the career of Serena Williams: “The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism.”7
These statistics might also help explain something about Hicok’s melancholy and other more toxic forms of white resentment. Today, the white writer with an elite degree must share the rewards that in the past were limited to those like themselves. Hicok and others may be surprised to learn that due to the creation of new prizes, white writers have been awarded more than ever since 2000: 46 prizes on average annually (up from an average of 36 a year in the 1990s). This is true even though since 2000, they have won a smaller percentage of the total. Basically, since the turn of the 21st century, even as there have been more racially diverse winners, there have also been more white winners.
When we turned to look at creative writing degrees more specifically, we found even greater educational inequities. We know that the MFA matters somewhat. If you compare that random sample from Books In Print to the sample of prize winners, those with an MFA are one and a half times more likely to win.
But like the other educational hierarchies just described, earning the MFA from a top program really matters. Attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop presents a version of these numbers in the extreme: graduates are 49 times more likely to win compared to writers who earned their MFA at any other program since 2000. This surprised us because the MFA is often understood to be a democratizing degree that can provide an entry into literary prestige for an excellent writer with a bachelor’s degree from Local State College.
Although the extremity of the odds for Harvard and Iowa surprised us, we have merely quantified something obvious. In the contemporary moment, serious literature is more or less written by graduates of elite institutions, often to be read in educational or education-adjacent settings.
In quantifying something obvious about literature, we have arrived at an observation about not just literature but America. As Thomas R. Dye puts it, “A striking characteristic of elites in America is the concentration of their higher education in a few prestigious universities.”8 He also notices that 50 percent of what he calls “top elites” received degrees “from one or another of just twelve universities.”9
The list is unsurprising. It begins with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. And over 20 percent of the same top elites got a degree from Harvard. What is true about top elites is also true of prizewinning writers of literature. Fifty percent went to the same 15 universities. This list begins with the University of Iowa, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia; 18 percent went to Harvard.
We think a lot about the student who went to Local State College prior to any of the 226 or so MFA programs other than Iowa. This student often shows up with both insight and a love of literature. For many, their path to the MFA has not been easy or an afterthought. They have signed up for staggering amounts of student loan debt, in addition to whatever they already owed for their undergraduate degree. Because the cost of attending an MFA program often exceeds the annual federal unsubsidized loan cap, many also take on PLUS loans, which begin to accrue interest the day they attend their first creative writing workshop. We know so many of these students. One left her job as a store manager to move across the country for an MFA program. Another worked in retail and hoped the MFA would prepare her to move into a more intellectually meaningful field. Their writing is, if measured by all accounts that we understand, excellent. So it is heartbreaking to realize that the odds of being recognized by the literary establishment are stacked against them.
The French writer Édouard Louis speaks of how “we didn’t reject literature—it rejected us.”10 His “we” is those who do not have preordained access to literary culture. The students we are talking about here also do not reject literature, despite all the ways it rejects them. That is perhaps what is most astounding, most heartening, and most disconcerting. There are a million stories we could tell about graduates of MFA programs who are building the kinds of literary culture they want to see, running Kickstarters for Afrofuturist or Indigenous publishing projects, starting reading series and forming collectives in rural towns. These writers are still, despite the odds, fighting hard to find readers and to create the conversations they want to have. Literature is impoverished by its inability to hear these writers, who have much to say about having a seat at the proverbial table, whether in literature or in life, and why it does not have enough seats for everyone. Our job is to figure out how to read them more loudly.
Kaitlyn Todd provided significant help with this article. Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So provided both statistical help and support for the data gathering for this project. Thanks to Jennifer Chukwu, Clare Lilliston, and Esther Vinarov for their data work. Gathering and categorizing this data about race often felt vexed. Racial categories not only evolve over time but also are unevenly and arbitrarily imposed in the US. We used current US census categories for race and ethnicity (despite our skepticism that these imposed categories are meaningful). When we gathered data on racial identification, we relied entirely on self-definition. Very few writers presented themselves as more than one racial category (and never enough to skew the data meaningfully). We categorized all writers who did not identify their race by the term “white.” There were very few instances where someone mentioned they were white in these materials.
This article was commissioned by Richard Jean So.
- Bob Hicok, “The Promise of American Poetry,” Utne Reader (accessed January 26, 2021). ↩
- Isaac Ginsberg Miller, “Poetry Is Not a Country Club: Reflecting on ‘The Change,’” Callaloo, vol. 40, no. 3 (2017), p. 84. ↩
- If a writer’s biographical note, website, interviews, or publicity materials mentioned race or ethnicity, if their work appeared in a racially specific anthology or magazine, or they mentioned in their materials that they were affiliated with an organization that supports writers who identify as a certain race (like Cave Canem), we used those signposts to determine race and/or ethnicity. We never identified someone based on phenotypes. ↩
- Victor LaValle, “My Favorite Richard Matheson Story Is the One I Lived Through,” Electric Literature, October 10, 2017. ↩
- Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 137. ↩
- Ibid., p. 138. ↩
- Claudia Rankine, “The Meaning of Serena Williams,” New York Times Magazine, August 25, 2015. ↩
- Thomas Dye, Who’s Running America?, 8th ed. (Routledge, 2014), p. 180. ↩
- Ibid., p. 180. ↩
- Kim Willsher, “Interview: Édouard Louis: ‘We didn’t reject literature—it rejected us,’” June 8, 2019. ↩